A READING FROM THE LETTER OF PAUL TO THE ROMANS
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
"I saw a star and its light was like something woven of hope and music, and the shimmer of it was a voice crying out to my spirit to keep hold, to take joy, and for a moment the whole of my suffering seemed unmade. The darkness became the false thing and the joy of that light, it was the truest thing I had ever known. How can we believe what beauty speaks to us in the darkness of mental illness and cancer and abuse and death? Because beauty calls to us with the voice of God."
Sarah Clarkson, in her book This Beautiful Truth, names, mental illness, cancer, abuse, death as just four examples of the many awful things that can happen in our lives. And while these kinds of experiences often make us feel alone and like God has abandoned us, this is never true. According to Clarkson, the beauty of our world attests to God’s presence with us. As Clarkson says, "beauty calls to us with the voice of God." Beauty is God shouting at us, reminding us that when we struggle, God is still with us, God is not separated from us.
Clarkson can help us to understand our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In his letter, Paul is not trying to fix problems in the Roman church, but he is supporting the congregation by expanding on his vision of the Gospel — that both Jews and Gentiles can be made right with God through Christ. Our passage today is complex, with Paul discussing many themes, but in the last two verses, Paul offers the Roman church a message of hope for when they face the challenges of being Christ followers in their world. He says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:36-39)
In these two verses Paul assures the Roman church that no matter how difficult their lives might be, no matter what anyone says or does to them because they follow Jesus instead of the Roman religion, nothing will ever be powerful enough to separate them from God’s love.
And today, Paul is speaking his message of reassurance to us. An inherent fear for many of us is that we might be completely alone in the world, fully separated from God. Paul is actually listing everything that the Romans think could separate them from God, and while we might repeat his list, also naming death, rulers, things present, things to come, we might add to it…disease, divorce, bankruptcy, a lack of purpose, loneliness, we could go on and on.
But Paul is clear to the Roman church and to us, “No matter what nightmares we may dream or experience, no matter where we may go or what we may do, no matter what may be done to us, nothing can separate us from God.”
As reassuring as Paul’s words are, without question they are difficult to believe, mainly because of how difficult life is sometimes. I know I have been in the place of feeling completely separate from God. The pandemic hit about 6 months after I moved to Edmonton. I was living alone in a basement with tiny windows and no light, the world became a terrifying place that I couldn’t even go shopping. My sister had just had a baby and I couldn’t fly home to support her and meet my new niece. Everything was awful, and God felt so far away. And as things got worse and worse in the world, God seemed even more distant. I couldn’t sense God’s love, support, comfort and this is something I am still working through even today. I know everyone here has their own examples of similar experiences, maybe from the past or happening now. It is a reality for all of us…when really bad things happen, God feels separate from us and Paul’s words, while wonderful to hear, are difficult to apply in our lives.
And this is where Sarah Clarkson comes in. Because Clarkson, who charts her experience with severe mental illness in her book, speaks about feeling separate from God and questioning God’s presence in her life too. And what helped her to journey through her suffering and to find God once again was the realization that God breaks into life through beauty. To quote another section of Clarkson’s book, “Where suffering has made God abstract and distant to us, where brokenness leaves us with unanswerable questions, beauty allows us to taste and see God's presence as he breaks in the circles of our inmost grief to remake the broken world.”
It is through beauty, not just natural beauty, flowers, rain, sunshine, thunderstorms, but the beauty of our experiences with each other, our friends, our families, the children in our lives, that God breaks into our world and proves that God is with us. Beauty is a manifestation of God…all beautiful things are proof that, as Paul says to the Roman church and to us, nothing can separate us from the love of God. We need to find the beauty in life, hold onto it, and remember that it is a gift from God, proving that God is here. My beauty is always my nieces, their joy, their cuddles, the FaceTime conversations we have about their desire to become ninjas when they grow up…just everything about them shows me God. So, what is your beauty? Can you hold onto it when life experiences make you feel separate from God?
Clarkson asks, "How can we believe what beauty speaks to us in the darkness of mental illness and cancer and abuse and death? Because beauty calls to us with the voice of God." All of us have experiences that make us feel separate from God, but when we glimpse beauty breaking into our struggles, we need to see that as a sign of God, calling out to us that God is remaking what is broken, that God loves us, and is with us. And this truth is what can help us to live Paul’s message to his Roman church, which he speaks to us today…as Paul says, remember that no matter what happens in life, nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love! Amen.
Check out Clarkson's book on Amazon
This sermon was inspired by David Lose's post in Working Preacher